Climate Change and the Mythical Price of Corn: Who Knew?


This week I got reminded that I live in Canada with a cold north wind mixed in with whisps of misty rain delaying my soybean harvest.  it ended with a bang last Saturday night with a snapped combine fan belt, one of those small annoyances during the harvest season.  Of course, these things always happen in about 5:00 o’clock on a Saturday night. I’ve got it all fixed now as I look forward to the next long stretch of sunshine. That soybean straw is getting rottener by the day.

The weather pattern was unusual as we had a low-pressure centre kind of stuck in northern Ontario just kind of spinning around sending wispy showers throat Ontario and Quebec farm country. After an arid summer, the ground is so dry, and this little bit of rain is not really changing anything.  However, as I helped fix my combine the cold wind blew, chilling these old bones.   A little bit of global warming would have been appreciated that day. Maybe adding a little bit of youth to my constitution would help as well.

We all know that we are facing a Canadian winter, in fact as each day goes by you can feel it getting colder and colder. It’s a natural process this time of year. The double crop soybeans in the neighborhood look to have a hard time maturing this time.  With the advent of global warming and climate change, I’ve always maintained there will be net agricultural benefits to polar countries like Russia and Canada. In other words, it will make our seasons longer and better for agricultural production.

Clearly though the complexities of climate change are much more detailed than my own musings. I have traveled and seen the effects of climate change close up in places like Bangladesh and I have seen the effects on the Canadian Arctic. It only stands to reason that if Canada is getting warmer that other countries South of us are getting warmer as well and this might not be too good for crop production.  Interestingly enough, I read our own DTN’s Chris Clayton’s recent article entitled “Crop Production and Climate Impacts” where he documents how climate change will slow the US Midwest yield increases for corn soybeans and wheat in the coming years.

It’s an interesting read where Chris talks about a report from the environmental defence fund that talks about corn yields in Iowa that will see 5% lower corn yields then without climate change with some areas seeing 10% lower. In the article he also talks about other counties in other states seeing yield decreases in corn and soybeans. We all know that corn doesn’t like nights above 80 degrees and, in the article, Chris talks about “killing degree days”, those with temperatures above 84 degrees Fahrenheit which inhibit crop development. In fact, Chris talks about how this will increase approximately 55% by the year 2030. The EDF study can be found at https://www.edf.org/…  It’s pretty interesting and telling stuff with wide implications for our future food supply as well as our commodity markets.

A few years ago, I had dinner with a leading meteorologist in the United States and we had a wide-ranging discussion on climate change. He mentioned to me at the time that he was very concerned about this as generally speaking it is warmer everywhere in the United States and this will affect crop production. My take was always that Canada would do better, and I had completely missed the fact that anywhere South of us will probably do not so good. Needless to say, there is a lot of support for climate mitigation and friendly policies to help stop the planet from warming up.

It is a difficult issue especially because politics are involved. In Canada, our federal government has a climate plan that involves putting a price on carbon.  I don’t think they have that plan right especially for Canadian agriculture.  Other political parties do not believe in that plan whatsoever or have no plan of their own. Going further, even the changes that we make now won’t be manifesting themselves until 30 years down the road, which makes this issue an even more difficult one to comprehend.

What we do know is for the most part agricultural technology helps us raise crop yields and we have seen that over history, in fact corn yields have been increasing exponentially over the last 10 years. Of course, in 2022 with all our geopolitical problems our costs are rising as well. So, we need that bigger production per acre to make everything work. However, if it turns out to be true that climate change will reduce these increases in crop yields into 2030 and beyond the net effect will be an increase in our costs because we cannot grow yield at a pace to pay for the increased costs. It makes for the specter of a very challenging time.

What to do?  I’m not quite sure as it is such a difficult road. The first thing I suppose is to take climate change seriously even in a country which is bone chilling cold for several months of the year. Look around and you can see all kinds of issues resonating that concern climate, crop production being one of them.  I also realize paying a higher and higher carbon tax is not necessarily the answer.  There are different levels of fairness to that argument.

There are different levels of fairness also to this climate change debate to the many people who live in the third world where development has not taken place yet. These people desire a better standard of living and much of that is not climate friendly defined by western voices.

As it is, it is such a big issue and that will continue into the end of this decade and beyond. Even though I do not provide many answers to this problem, it’s pretty clear to me that it will make farming more difficult, especially if those yield robbing effects Chris documents in his article really take hold.  When I was a younger farmer, it’s about the last thing I thought of.  Now, it’s right up there with the mythical future price of corn.  Getting a handle on both as we move ahead, will surely be a challenge.